KRAB has the Blues
That evening proved to be a turning point in West's life, "It all fell together right there," he remembered. "Ray invited me down to the sessions at his houseboat, the one I'm living in now, which I bought from him in 1972. Bob Graf became a friend and mentor ... Later I played trombone with the Great Excelsior Jazz Band ... Then I started getting into the guitar and piano, playing the blues."
Duffy and Skjelbred hosted "Classic Jazz," a record show on KRAB. They asked West to play some blues records. KRAB-founder Milam listened and liked what he heard. "The next Monday, he asked if I'd like to have my own radio show, and that's how I got on the air, February 14, 1967.
"I got to play Fred McDowell records, Blind Willie McTell, Son House ‒ my favorites ‒ and it gave me a chance to play some old traditional, real rough, great, New Orleans bands that played blues, like the Kid Thomas band, and other styles of blues that just weren't being played. Jazz people, traditional jazz people, put their noses up in the air at the Creole style of playing. And I included one or two electric blues records, too. I tried to cover the whole thing without getting into popular music and soul music."
It was through his show that West first met the legendary blues guitarists whose music he later preserved on recordings. "The Seattle Folklore Society brought blues musicians into town, and KRAB worked to promote their shows ... We heard that Booker White was coming into town, and Duffy and I interviewed Booker on KRAB with Folklore Society president John Ullman. During the course of the interview, Furry Lewis' name came up. Booker said Furry was alive and well in Memphis."
A year later, West flew to Memphis where he spent five days living with Lewis. "Luckily, I had decent gear ... Lorenzo knew I had an Ampex 601 tape recorder, and he set everything up for me with a mike stand borrowed from Phil Williams and an RCA Model 77 microphone, one of the best mikes ever made, along with a little transformer in the line so it would be compatible with my Ampex."
It was a dangerous time for a white boy in Memphis. "This was a couple of months after Martin Luther King was assassinated," West said. "If I knew how bad things really were, I think I would have chickened out of it because all the buildings on Beale Street had been busted up, and plywood over all the windows ... Furry lived on the second floor of an old hotel on the corner of Fourth and Beale in the very historic area at the center of where all the old blues players had performed.
"I couldn't leave the house alone because Memphis was in such bad shape. Furry wouldn't let me do it. One night I tried to go over to Dewey Corley's house a block away, and 15 guys came up between two houses and tried to scare the wits out of me, and I went right back. So every time I went into Furry's house he had a big 2 × 4 he'd put up on the door, and he'd bring his pistol out in case the guys were going to try to come in."
On the trip, West recorded White, Lewis, and blues pianist Albino Red in Memphis, and guitarist Babe Stovall in New Orleans. When he returned to Seattle, he and Graf issued Furry Lewis and Bukka White at Home with Friends as a 12-inch LP on their Asp record label.
Over the years, West interviewed many artists as they passed through Seattle, including Johnny Shines, Pinetop Perkins, Fred McDowell, Mance Lipscomb, Son House, Sunnyland Slim, Big Joe Williams, Barbara Dane, and Robert Pete Williams. Often, Bob would cook up a week's supply of meals, stock the refrigerator, and vacate the houseboat so the musician would have a quiet place to stay during his engagement. White, Perkins, Sunnyland, Shines, and Pete Seeger enjoyed this brand of hospitality.
West worked at Boeing until the bottom fell out of the aircraft industry in the 1970s. With time on his hands, he increased his volunteer work for KRAB until he was hired as a program director, using his vacations for field trips to Louisiana in 1977, and St. Louis and Memphis in 1979. His recordings of Henry Townsend, Alvin Calhoun, Laura Dukes, and George and Bernadette McCoy from the latter trip, as well as others from the 1968 trip, were released on Arcola, the CD label he started in the 1990s.
After KRAB disbanded in 1984, West worked in quality control for the Stearns Co., a Boeing supplier. Known to fellow employees as "Jay," he remained in the aircraft industry until his retirement in 2007.
Bob lived in the houseboat on Wandesforde dock at Fairview Avenue for 47 years. Neighbors were accustomed to his late-night record-listening and jam sessions. His annual Fourth of July parties were memorable for their motley gatherings of musicians, radio volunteers, houseboat denizens, painters, glass-blowers, film buffs, and other interesting people who otherwise had no reason to mix.
West's thoughtfulness and generosity were legendary. A passing comment would lead later to an unsolicited gift of a book, a record, or a music- or video-tape or disc which often took hours to prepare. Even if he wasn't particularly interested himself, he kept an eye out for references to a topic in print or on TV if he knew someone who was. As a host or guest or to help a sick friend, he prepared special dishes, which he would either give to a departing visitor or deliver himself, as the situation dictated.
Bob's uncle, Tony West, was a midget-race-car driver in the 1930s, and Bob was as passionate about racing as music. Invariably, when he was not monitoring an educational show or an old movie, or recording programs and music for his friends, his television would be tuned to a car race.
Riding with West was a mini-lesson in race-car driving. Although careful to obey the rules of the road, he drove aggressively and was a stickler for taking the most efficient route to any destination. Once up to speed, he maintained a tachometer reading of at least 2500 rpms. "Most people don't know how to drive a stick shift," he'd say. "They go through the gears too quickly, and that's hard on the valves."
Bob was passionate about preserving the music of self-taught, agrarian-based musicians. He hoped their music might lead future musicians to learn their art in natural settings which would inspire more freedom and creativity than the formulaic pathway offered by today's popular culture and hide-bound systems of formal education. "I'm not a marketeer, and I am not concerned with business at all. I'd be tickled to death if I can communicate this material to 10 kids, and they carry it to the next generation.
"... Why do we preserve our knowledge of being a blacksmith? I think everything beautiful that man has produced should be protected and saved. We may have to use it again. People I've talked to that work in ethnic studies at the University of Washington, why do they go to these countries and study music and dance? It's to find out how and why they live and maybe find out if we're missing something ‒ if we're forgetting about something."
In this regard, West walked the walk his entire life. Relying on records and his personal experience with the blues legends, Bob spurned formal instruction and taught himself to play the guitar, piano, trumpet, trombone, and the full gamut of "novelty" jug band and skiffle instruments. With fellow musicians, he could be stubborn and argumentative if they failed to adhere to the traditional style. Bands he formed were often short-lived, but always interesting. They included the Cornucopia Jazz Band, Peetie Wheatstraw and His Buddies, Mr. Cookie and the Crumbs, and the Acme Blues Band.
A lifelong humanitarian, West numbered the ACLU, Habitat for Humanity, Greenpeace, Public Citizen, KCTS Television, and the Smithsonian Institution among the organizations he supported.
West is survived by his sister Susan, of Seattle; his cousins Gary West and his wife Donna, of Seattle, and Matthew West and Michael West, both of Redmond; and his dear friend Rose Hedley, residing in Wales. A memorial is under consideration, but definite plans have not been made.
The first King Biscuit Show was Feb 5, 1970, when the Dec 27, 1969 KRAB recording of Bob's interview/session with Big Joe Williams was broadcast. Prior to then Bob's program on KRAB had simply been called "Rhythm and Blues" or "Blues West", the latter which Bob was not real excited about. In Jul 1970 it became, and stayed, King Biscuit Time.
In the early 1970's, while taking a break from working at KRAB, I listened at home, and sometimes recorded King Biscuit Time off the air. Assembled here are some excerpts from those recordings. The music is not identified in the KRABplayer, but I have a list. A solid brass figlagee will be sent to any that can name more than 50%.
BOOKER WHITE, Mississippi dobro blues guitar player talks with Bob West, Mike Duffy and John Ullman, blues freaks, and plays out his life in word and song. "It was like interviewing Mother Earth," said Duffy. (R)
Recording courtesy Bob West, BW0012
West Blues. How, when, where and why to get the best blues available. With comments on Belzona recordings and excerpts from Son House’s recent Seattle concert. With Bob West.
Bob West and Son House (John Ullman, photo)
Son House came to Seattle for Folklore Society concerts in Mar 1968 and again in Nov 1969. On the 1968 occasion Bob West interviewed House. This recording comes from CD2 of the two CD set released by Arcola Records: "Son House in Seattle 1968". The notes indicate that Richard A. C. Green engineered the recording.
Recording courtesy Bob West, BW0008
The Great Furry Lewis Recorded Live at the KRAB studios. . . .Furry his wooden leg & his guitar came with Bukka White 3,000 miles by Greyhound bus to play for the first time on the west coast. . . .Furry and Bob West got together with a six pack of beer and they talk and Furry plays and we're going to save the tape forever 'cause it was really beautiful and we really fell in love with him and he can come back anytime and be on the board of directors.
Broadcast again Oct 14, 1971, with the following program notes:
Furry Lewis Interviewed at KRAB by Bob West on May 20. Since then, Furry has enjoyed the fruits of 'rediscovery,' many concerts and a number of recordings, the best one being a session with Bukka White in Memphis and released by Bob, Mike Duffy and Bob Graf on their fledgling ASP label. Although we have many West blues interviews, in the archives, we decided on this one for the Marathon because it hasn't been played since then and also because it may best typify the relaxed style Bob uses to transform a cold studio into a comfortable room in which to talk and play. A long-time KRAB volunteer, Bob West can be heard bi-weekly Sunday evenings on King Biscuit Time.
The program Bob put together was about an hour in length. We've had to cut the last 13 minutes off, because it developed some technical issues when it was transferred to a CD. If someone out there has a copy that doesn't have the jitters in those last 13 minutes, we would love to be able share it here.
Recording courtesy Bob West, BW0018
Mississippi Fred McDowell - In Seattle, playing his new electric guitar and Bob West’s old National, drinking gin and answering questions.
Somehow I was able to see McDowell at Vancouver’s Magic Theatre before he died July 3, 1972.
Recording collection of C Reinsch, CR0036
A special program, in which Bob West meets Big Joe Williams, who is heard on 9-string electric and 6-string acoustic guitar.
It is a little rough in the first minute as the microphone is repositioned, but after that Big Joe takes off, and Bob dances.
Recording courtesy Bob West, BW0007
From Bob West's collection of interviews, here Bob and Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records) talk with Texas blues guitarist and singer Mance Lipscomb at KRAB. Lipscomb died Jan 30, 1976.
Recording courtesy Bob West , BW0009
Here's another of Bob West's interviews of blues musicians, this one with Pinetop Perkins, boogywoogy piano player. Although it was scheduled in a program guide for May 3, 1982, it would seem likely it was recorded in Apr of 1981 when Pinetop brought his Legenday Blues Band to the Rainbow.
Patrick MacDonald in the Seattle Times, Apr 3, 1981
Recording courtesy of Bob West, BW0014
Barbara Dane, in Seattle performing at Washington Hall and Rainy Town folk club, talks with Bob West about her music and Cuba. This seems to have been recorded in Jul of 1983.
Recording courtesy of the Bob West, BW0005
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